I spent my twenties in Atlanta working on and earning a Ph.D. Becoming a grown-ass woman in that city in the early to late aughts (2003-2009) was hard on my self-esteem and my love life. Atlanta is one of those fabled cities for Black middle class women and wannabes. With all the wonderful chocolatey Blackness of that city, heterosexual Black women buy into the idea that their beautiful man, beautiful house, dope career, and future children are waiting on them there. Atlanta was my dream city, and I love it to this day.
As dating went, back in the day, the A didn’t love me. And like most deep South Black girls, I dealt with my dating problems in church, praying about what I needed to fix and change, and what the Lord was working in me to change to prepare me for this perfect man (that never came and who I am no longer looking for.) The other thing about Atlanta if you are straight and Black and Christian back then was the mega church culture. There are all kinds of fancy, sophisticated churches in Atlanta, and I was an active and tithing member of one. I did all the worshipping, serving in ministry, and Bible studying that I could. I didn’t do it to get a man. My spiritual life exists separate from any romantic partner; but a big part of my life in my 20s was trying to figure out when the magical dude was going to show up. And everyone from the preachers on down to my homegirls who I served in ministry with had a whole lot to say about this process.
But the core of their advice was: keep your legs closed. God will send you somebody once you fix your life. And if you ain’t got nobody you ain’t ready yet. And again, keep your legs closed. If you looked even remotely concerned with this advice, they would shut you up with four words: The Bible is clear. …
Luckily (or blessedly), graduation and a new job took me away from Atlanta, from its demoralizing dating scene, and its even worse Christian megachurch bubble. But apparently after I left, purity culture became an official thing among grown-ass Black women. Apparently, there are really sisters out here telling grown-ass women not to kiss their dudes until the wedding. Seriously?
Let me tell y’all how blessed I feel that Jesus delivered me out of that madness before it took root. I am so glad that my testimony at 35 is not that I ain’t been on a date and been touched since I was 25. Because when I left Atlanta at age 28, I was definitely en route to that being my story.
So I’m just going to share with you four reasons why I have come after much prayer, careful consideration, Bible study, and other-than-the-Bible book reading, to reject purity culture for grown-ass Black women.
- Purity culture spiritualizes social problems. Marriage rates are in decline across all social strata and demographics. The Church claims this is a spiritual attack on marriages, when really marriage has always been an economic and social transaction—even in the Bible. Because women in particular don’t need to rely on marriages for economic sustenance anymore, they are infinitely more discriminating about what makes for a good mate or partner. And because our flailing economy keeps unemployment rates among Black men at astronomically higher rates than any other group, many of these men are not able to perform traditionally masculine roles in marriage. I reject the necessity of traditional gender roles out of hand, btw. But the larger point is that these are social problems – problems of the way that white supremacy, patriarchy and capitalism make it hard for Black folks to build lives together. Purity culture makes Black women believe that God can protect them from all these terrible effects of white supremacy and capitalism simply by choosing not to have sex. Black women’s vaginas are magic, you understand. Systems bow to our pussies. (Except in the case of rape, domestic violence, slavery, etc, etc.) Such thinking makes us less apt to confront the systems themselves. Black folks know its rough in these streets; we know systems seem impossible to overcome. But God. That’s what we go to church to hear preachers tell us: “But God is bigger than all these systems.” I believe God is bigger than all these systems. But I also believe God equips us to fight back against systems. Focusing on the impurity of people obscures the utter rottenness and impurity of these systems in which we are forced to navigate. And I think the point is not for us to ask solely for individual blessings while the system harms everyone else, but for us to think robustly about how to tear down the systems that make it so hard for us to see each other’s humanity, connect well, and love on each other properly. Spirit matters in combatting social problems, but spirituality should not be used to deny or reduce the importance of how systems of structural violence shape our lives.
- Purity culture disempowers us while claiming to empower us. It robs us of social agency in our dating lives and interpretive agency in our spiritual lives.
A. Social agency — I have heard countless Black church girls say: “I don’t approach men. The Word Says “he who findeth a wife findeth a good thing.” How long, beloveds, are y’all going to let this one verse be the basis of your terrible theology of marriage and dating? Look, we are all afraid of rejection, but the love life I have today has everything to do with my willingness to approach brothers I liked and ask them on a date. Stop using the Bible as a reason to do nothing but sit around and wait on a love life to show up at your door. That’s not how this works. And that’s not a good way to read Proverbs. Proverbs offered life principles. It’s not a rule book. That verse simply means that men should recognize the value in finding a great partnership. Extrapolating that men are the only ones who can do the finding is a total stretch. Ask Ruth whether Boaz found her or whether she found him and tricked him into thinking he found her. Stop letting this bad theology of purity rob you of the agency to follow your bliss and be intentional about building the kind of romantic life you want. I don’t care what anyone says – dude most prolly ain’t gone show up on your door step.
B. Interpretive agency — Purity Culture perpetuates the ongoing lie that there is only way to read the Bible, and that the Bible is an excellent book for navigating dating and relationships. Here’s a clue: it is not. We are taught in evangelical Christian churches that God has a standard for how we ought to live and that standard is laid out for us in crystal clear terms in the Bible. That belief is seductive. If you’ve been out here struggling to make your life work, and someone says, “there’s a rule book. Follow it to a tee. Don’t deviate (Joshua 1:1-9 lol). And all your blessings will show up. God just had these blessings in hock, waiting on you to get on board with these rules,” who wouldn’t do it? We all want guaranteed success. Life is tough as shit. We all want to minimize the harm it can do. But listen y’all. We need to start looking at the Bible as an invitation into an ongoing conversation with God and with those who have come before us. We get to ask questions. We get to disagree. We get to call out injustice. We get to ask as Candice Benbow asked, “what if we saw Black women’s singleness as an affront to the Cross?” We get to ask whether one group’s “promised land” was another group’s genocidal nightmare (especially since the genocide recipients looked more like our ancestors)? We get to ask how we fit into this story. We get to ask God whether or not the theology of family and sexuality that white people created really works for folks whose sexuality they used and abused and demonized. We get to ask whether a heterosexual, two-parent family is really the prized biblical model since it doesn’t seem like Abraham, Moses, David, Jesus, Timothy, Solomon and the like worked from or came from that model. Instead though, we are fed an ever more sophisticated diet of reasons why we are supposed to keep our sexuality on lock.
If your church is anything like the one I went to in Atlanta, they tell you to take more and more classes so you can dig deeper and come further in line with God’s will. But really as you learn more and more about doctrine, you are becoming indoctrinated. You are told that your questions matter, when really the goal is to steer you deliberately toward a singular answer. That’s not education; that’s indoctrination. And in the process, Black women become more sophisticated in their theology of self-denial (the flesh is deceitful, you see) but far less wise and knowledgeable about how live out a liberatory spirituality. We become comfortable spiritualizing our suffering, acting as though perpetual lack of partners is just our “cross to bear.” But Black women are not Jesus, and we should really ask questions about how far to take that “deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me” business. Because if it means Black women are subjected to a life time of suffering, then I’m sorry but Jesus owes us something different. (I actually am saved, though I know some of you feel like I ain’t by this point. Lol.) This is a dangerous denial of interpretive agency, dressed up as the conferral of agency upon you to “know the word for yourself.” It’s insidious and frankly, kind of diabolical. You go to class after class, sermon after sermon and hear that all God has for you is for you to wait on the man, the touch, the intimacy, that never comes. People disempower you while telling you they are empowering you. Rebuke that shit. And then get into the conversation. Ask questions. Commune at the tent of Ruth and Boaz and reconsider how that all really went down. Read some new books. Ask other questions. The answers you get might surprise you.
- Purity culture perpetuates toxic femininity. It typically places the onus on women to submit, to keep their legs closed, and to practice modesty so that men aren’t tempted. Yet it also requires that women look traditionally beautiful and desirable so that they will be attractive to men. We know these ideas are rooted in a form of toxic masculinity that sees women’s value in terms of what they offer to men; but it’s a toxic form of Black femininity, too. It’s toxic because any of you familiar with any of this know the exact kind of nasty and unwelcome zeal with which Black church girls dig their heels in around sex and purity and then police and judge anyone who doesn’t think about it the way they do. But it is also toxic internally because it causes Black women untold amounts of pain and anxiety from years of not being touched, years of not having our bodies affirmed, years of not having an outlet to express desires that come naturally to people who are sexual (and not all people are.) And of course it is toxic femininity because it is rooted in limited ideas about proper Black womanhood that are heterosexist and cis-normative, which is to say if you aren’t perfectly coiffed, putatively straight, and non-transgender, then you definitely aren’t pure.
- Purity culture demonizes Black women’s bodies. It reinforces white supremacy, antiblackness, patriarchy and capitalism in the process. You can’t love your body and hate its sexual desires. And it’s hard as hell to love yourself when no one ever hollers at you, touches you, etc. The goal of purity culture is for women in particular to secure a happy nuclear family. Many white evangelicals subscribe to it, because on its face, it seems to work out. And even if their first marriages don’t, they are more likely to get married a second time. Whiteness got a monopoly on second and third and fourth chances. The thing is though: white supremacy propagated the lie that Black women were impure, unrapeable, immoral, sexually insatiable, and fundamentally filthy and dirty. White supremacy said Black women were loud, unfeminine, out of control and ugly. White supremacy told that lie, long before brothers started believing it. They used Christian teachings about us being descendants of Ham and the cursed Canaanites to propagate such ideas. Black women for the first 250 years in the Americas didn’t have the luxury of deciding when and where to open and close our legs; we didn’t have full choice to determine whom to invite in; we didn’t get to choose how to build our intimate lives. We knew our bodies were sacred long before white folks did. They were the ones who violated our bodily sanctity over and over again. While white men circumscribed white women’s movement to the private sphere to protect their purity, they snuck out to the quarters each night to show depraved indifference to us. Thus Black women’s obsession with purity and respectability post-slavery had everything to do with reclaiming and reimagining some sense of dignity, vulnerability, choice, and desire after having been denied those things forever. Our understandings of Christian purity have never been separate from our embattled history on these shores. They are not separable now, either. White evangelicals pioneered the purity movement to control white women’s bodies and to continue to propagate white families that could easily procure and pass on material wealth, because of a never-ending stream of access to middle class resources. When I watch preachers, particularly those who pastor megachurches that pay lots of money for sophisticated theological curricula for their members, adopt the same workbooks and authors being taught in white churches, I’m amazed at how oblivious they are to the ways that white evangelicalism is wholly irrelevant for the lives of Black people. It’s fine (theoretically anyway) to tell straight white girls to stay pure, when its clear that they will most likely get married. It’s cruel to tell that to Black women in the face of severely declining marriage rates. The result of Black women’s singleness (particularly in the professional ranks) is often years or decades of never being touched and then an old age potentially spent in social isolation. Acting as though any theology curriculum matters regardless of social circumstance seems to go against the way in which Jesus taught. Theology is made for us; we are not made for theology. Moreover, as my good friend Dr. Tabitha Chester points out, purity culture and those authors who profit from single Black women’s misery is exploitative and reinforces capitalism. The church should not use Black women’s pain to make a profit.
Pure is not what I’m striving to be. I’m real. Complicated. Passionate. Sexual. Faithful. I’m also happily dating and crafting the kind of love life I want to have. Consequently, I’m 35, but I’m not miserable, desperate, or lonely, despite my singleness. The quality of my life has not ever risen or fallen based on how far apart or close together my knees are. But purists know that the only way grown women close their legs indefinitely is if they close their mouths and their minds, too. The fear is that if women open their minds to think and open their mouths to speak, naturally, they might conclude that in the right circumstances opening one’s legs would be just fine, too. And to those who have this fear, I say to them, church girl that I am, “God has not (in fact) given you a spirit of fear.” (2 Tim 1:7)